Trial by Fire

In August, 1997 I arrived at college with a lot of curiosity but without a lot of direction.  I knew that I wanted to study history.  As an avid numismatist with a specific interest in ancient coins, I wanted to know enough Latin to read inscriptions with facility.

Reverse of silver denarius, struck by Marcus Antonius in 42 B.C. to celebrate the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.

So far, so nerdy.  I enrolled in Latin with the vague idea that archaeologists of classical sites needed to know Latin, and that maybe that would be my path.

I found that Latin was really hard, at least for me.  This had a lot to do with the fact that I lacked study skills and was pretty bad at managing my time.  Throw into the mix that on the afternoon my sweet family was moving me into the dorm, there was a fire.  My poor parents had to drive all the way home from Michigan to Texas knowing that I would be spending a good part of my first semester in temporary housing.  

It was a fun but chaotic first few weeks.  It felt like summer camp with some classes thrown in.  Not exactly the best conditions for developing strong habits, but I don’t blame the fire.  Other girls in my situation didn’t struggle as badly — the far more likely culprit was my lack of discipline.

To struggle academically was a new thing for me.  I was homeschooled, and while I had taken community college classes, co-op classes, and a variety of correspondence graded courses, I really hadn’t had to try very hard.  I read voraciously, listened to BBC Radio 4, tinkered, and generally spent a lot of time pursuing my interests (see above, numismatics).

There is much to recommend homeschooling, but I will say that there is one big potential downside — it can incentivize not sticking with subjects that are worthwhile but difficult.  I think the wide availability of online courses and diffusion of hybrid homeschooling programs, like Classical Conversations, has largely mitigated this risk.  

Furthermore, my difficulties in Latin really didn’t relate to how much I wanted to learn it.  I truly enjoyed the subject and the classes.  

But enjoying and wanting to learn weren’t enough.  I wasn’t doing the work.  I was still dabbling.

Latin required a sort of precision that I simply hadn’t had to master before.  But I realized that if I wanted to learn the language, I’d have to put in the work.  It wasn’t impossible, but it would be hard.

Over Christmas Break, in between shifts working as a waitress at a local Chinese restaurant, I (finally) made and studied flashcards for vocabulary and grammatical forms.  I went back and looked at the quizzes and tests I’d flubbed and corrected my errors.

That was a pivotal four-ish weeks of my life.  When I returned for the Spring term, my grades dramatically improved, not just in Latin but in my other subjects.

Why?  I think it was because I realized that while professors could give grades and assignments, I was the owner of my education.  Only I could decide what and how to alter my long-term memory.  They could (and did) inspire, encourage, and correct, but only I could sit down and do the work.

I found that, once I put the time in, Latin became fun — so much fun that I decided to take Greek the following fall.  The rest, as they say, is history.  

I credit that Latin class and the faculty of the Hillsdale Classics Department, especially Professor Joe Garnjobst, with helping me to take a critical step forward in my maturity as a human being.  It was only the beginning, but as I learned there, initium dimidium facti.

My hope is that we who have a role in education, whether as parents, teachers, tutors, or school leaders, will remember that what we are doing is formation.  We are helping other human beings accomplish not just higher levels of knowledge of the world, but ideally, a better understanding of themselves in the world.

We don’t really know what we’re capable of until we bump up against challenges.  May we take our jobs so seriously that we only remove the obstacles that a child truly can’t move, and leave in place the ones that only seem insurmountable. 

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